Public records bill is focus of all-Island selectmen’s meeting

A representative of the Massachusetts Municipal Association told Island officials some proposed changes were not fair to local government.

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MSA Vice President Josh Ostroff and MMA Legislative Director John Robertson on stage at the Strand Theater Friday spoke at the all-Island selectmen's meeting. — Photo by Cathryn McCann

Island selectmen representing all six towns met Friday at the Strand Theater in Oak Bluffs for an all-Island selectmen’s meeting with Josh Ostroff, Natick selectman and vice president of the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association, and John Robertson, legislative director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA). The most pressing and controversial issue discussed was a recent bill that would overhaul the Massachusetts public records law.

The MMA, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan association that provides advocacy, training, publications, research, and other services to Massachusetts cities and towns,” objects to certain tenets of the proposed bill that have found strong support among newspapers and open-government advocates.

Massachusetts is widely considered to have one of the weakest public record laws in the country. The proposed changes would be the first effort to strengthen the law, which dates back to 1973, in more than four decades.

The bill, which has support from many advocacy groups and lawmakers, would fine agencies that violate the law, cover the costs of attorney fees for requestors who successfully sue for public record access, reduce the cost of copies, and make electronic documents more easily obtainable, among other changes. These changes would attempt to keep agencies from charging outlandish fees or not adhering to the 10-day compliance policy.

When the bill was first proposed, there was hope the House would vote on it by the end of August. As of Tuesday, July 28, however, the House planned to put off the vote until later in the year, after facing local opposition.

At the Friday meeting, Mr. Ostroff described the MMA’s situation as being “one of the only voices against a train that appears to be leaving the station.”

Mr. Robertson attempted to clarify the MMA stance. He said the MMA is not opposed to the bill entirely, but to some of the proposed changes. He said that in changing the timeline and fee structure of the law, three things could happen.

“You would get requests that you could not meet within the timeframe established,” he said. “You would end up getting a lot more requests than you’re getting now, and you would not be able to charge enough to cover the costs of requests.”

He also said there was not enough protection from public-record-request harassment.

West Tisbury Town Administrator Jennifer Rand urged the MMA to support the proposed changes and the intent of the bill.

“I would urge you that if you continue to work to try to find amendments in the bill, to work very hard to not soften the changes to the point that it has very little meat to it,” she said. “I think that the changes are important. I think what we do is public, and it’s paid for by the public, and the public has a right to it.”

She said she recognized that some pieces were problematic, and that the harassment issue was real, but that technology has made time constraints less of an issue.

“We get paid to be in the office every day,” she said. “That’s what we’re there for. So I think it’s important to maintain as many of the changes as possible.”

Recent reporting on the topic has highlighted a number of examples where public officials charged high fees or refused to provide public documents in a timely manner. The Boston Globe reported on an instance where the Massachusetts State Police “demanded $2.7 million for a database of Breathalyzer results that other states provided for nothing or a nominal fee.”

Following the meeting, Mr. Robertson said reporting of the public records law has been characterized by the most extreme examples, as in the Globe article.

“I can’t defend it because I don’t know the facts, but we’re not going to write a law based on a few extreme examples,” he said. “We’re going to ask the fundamental question: Can we update the law to make it work for both the requestors and the cities and towns involved?”

He said that the bill should be put off until September before being put to vote. He said the MMA would support a “balanced piece of legislation.”

“It’s a complicated topic,” he said. “My sense is there’s a political interest in getting it done more quickly. I think we should give it until September. If all parties are committed to getting it done, which we are, then I think we ought to just take the time to get it right.”

Also Friday, Mr. Ostroff and Mr. Robertson encouraged selectmen to get involved with the MMA, reviewed fiscal year 2015 and 2016 state budgets, and discussed tourism and room-occupancy taxation revenues.